"I am an artist that paints with paper."[i]
Mark Bradford (b. 1961 in Los Angeles, California) is a contemporary African American artist best known for his richly textured and massively scaled abstract compositions assembled out of hardware store-materials and layers of urban ephemera. Scavenging from his personal life and the immediate surroundings of his South-Central Los Angeles neighborhood, his multimedia collages incorporate bits of billboard signs, print advertisements and permanent-wave endpapers that he arranges, layers, burns, cuts, sands and bleaches to form intricate shapes and textures. Building up his surfaces up only to tear them down, Bradford enacts a fastidious and labor-intensive process that involves a refined technique of décollage—a process defined by cutting, tearing away or otherwise removing, pieces of an original image—and collage—a layering back in.[ii] Once complete, Bradford’s densely packed tableaus present raw abstract landscapes that neatly fit into the formal cannon of abstraction. Yet, beyond the surface of abstraction a unique style of representation takes form in his material choice. The layers of detritus are embedded with the context from which they were sourced, the found materials come with ready-made stories of their own, a built-in social history that seeps through to saturate the canvas. While his formal language contains the same gravitas as the Abstract Expressionists, Bradford utilizes the visual rhetoric to convey his own stories in what he has termed “social abstraction”, as he puts it “abstract art with a social or political context clinging to the edges.”[iii] Lingering beneath his tactile surfaces, themes of race, culture, sexuality and class ground the rhythmic expanse of the canvas.
In Window Shoppers bursts of red, blue, orange and yellow striations horizontally streak across the canvas, obscuring the ground below. The chaotic surface tension created by the brightly hued gestures and the underlying dark shapes is disrupted by a network of squares that crystalize on the surface and form a loose grid-like pattern that seems to offer a sense of organization to the electrifying force pulsating from the center. The organizing blocks are made of transparent veils of permanent-wave endpapers that are personally linked to growing up the son of a hairdresser. The endpapers were not only convenient and cheap but laden with personal and social associations that offered him a representational vocabulary connected to the “rarefied public space” of the salon.
The utilization of the endpapers in Window Shopper epitomizes Bradford’s early work and is part of a pivotal body of work that started in the mid-2000s when the artist expanded his use of found materials forming what would become his signature style. The collected paper—often advertisements targeted at an urban demographic—are meticulously woven into his compositions to create a unique mapping of the political and emotive terrain of the artist’s personal background and geography. Requiring visual excavation, in the same way his process reveals formal elements otherwise hidden, it also reveals communities and social structures often unnoticed and without a voice. The title, Window Shopper, is a likely homage to the Hip-Hop culture from which he grew up and likely named after a song of the same title released in the same year by rapper 50 Cent. In the song, 50 Cent uses the term “window shopper” as a reference for people who look at stuff they cannot buy. The term is also slang for “someone who looks at the opposite race, without actually meeting them.”[iv] Artist intended or not, the connotation of the latter definition is profound with respect to Bradford’s work. Unless you are from that community, you are only able to peer in. Yet, through visual excavation, Bradford offers every viewer the chance for a better understanding, one that goes beyond the surface level and into depths of something both highly personal and generic.
Window Shopper was created at the precipice of Bradford being recognized as one of the greatest painters of his generation and belongs to a celebrated group of paintings created in the mid-2000s that include Los Moscos (2004) in the collection of Tate in London, and Scorched Earth (2006) in the collection at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles. Bradford has won several awards for his wide-ranging conceptual practice, that includes mediums such as collage, painting, video, installation and sculpture. His awards include the Nancy Graves Foundation Grant (2002); Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award (2003), Bucksbaum Award for Distinction at the Whitney Biennial (2006) and a MacArthur Fellowship (2009). Solo exhibitions of Bradford’s work have been held at The Long Museum, Shanghai, China (2019); Baltimore Museum of Art (2019); Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C. (2017); Museum of Fine Arts Boston (2017): Denver Art Museum (2017); Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (2016); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2007); and Cincinnati Art Museum (2008), among others. His retrospective organized by the Wexner Center (2010) traveled to the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2010–11); Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (2011); Dallas Museum of Art (2011–12); and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2012). His work has also appeared in group shows at such institutions as the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (2001, 2005); Royal Academy of Arts, London (2006); Museum of Modern Art, New York (2008); and Aspen Art Museum (2010). In addition to Prospect and Whitney, Bradford’s work has been also presented in the São Paulo Biennial and Busan Biennial, South Korea (2006). In 2017 Bradford represented the United States at Venice Benniale, as the first African American artist to represent the United States.
[i] Mark Bradford, quoted in “Mark Bradford Painting with Paper”, Hirshhorn Museum (February 15, 2018), online video. [ii] Décollage is an artistic process connected to the 20th century Dadaists and Nouveau Réalisme movements. [iii] Mark Bradford, quoted in Calvin Tomkins, “What Else Can Art Do?”, The New Yorker (June 22, 2015), online. [iv] UrbanDictionary.com